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Clause 49 - Family proceedings courts

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 4:15 pm, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in

clause 49, page 23, leave out lines 31 and 32 and insert—

'( ) The Lord Chancellor may make rules under subsection (4) provided that he has—

(a) published the draft rules;

(b) consulted the Family Procedure Rules Committee; and

(c) had regard to their recommendations.'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 30, in

clause 49, page 23, line 39, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 60, in

clause 49, page 23, line 40, at end insert—

'( ) In discharging his duties under this section the Lord Chancellor shall make provision for the training of a sufficient number of lay justices to sit on family proceedings courts.'.

Amendment No. 61, in

clause 50, page 24, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert—

'( ) The Lord Chancellor may make rules under subsection (4) provided that he has—

(a) published the draft rules;

(b) consulted the Criminal Procedure Rules Committee; and

(c) had regard to their recommendations.'.

Amendment No. 62, in

clause 50, page 24, line 36, at end insert—

'( ) In discharging his duties under this section, the Lord Chancellor shall make provision for the training of a sufficient number of lay justices to sit on youth courts.'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

We now come to family proceedings. In due course we shall discuss other matters, such as youth courts. I am especially concerned about such things, not least because in my early years at the Bar I spent much time doing family law cases, both in the magistrates courts and the county courts. At one stage my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is now in the shadow Cabinet, and I spent much time on such cases, working either together or on opposite sides. We used to meet in courts in places such as Peterborough and work on domestic violence injunctions. Because of the harrowing circumstances in so many of those cases, I am aware of the crucial importance of family proceedings, especially when we are talking about the protection of children.

This group of amendments would require more than changes to clause 49—amendments Nos. 61 and 62 deal with clause 50. Amendment No. 59 would require the Lord Chancellor to consult and have regard to the views of the family procedure rules committee. On considering the matter last night, it occurred to me that I may have picked out the wrong subsection in my amendment. Perhaps I should have referred to subsection (6). If that is part of the Minister's response, I concede at the outset that I may have got it slightly wrong. On looking at how the amendment reads across to clause 50 I realise that I may not have got that quite right.

I hope that the Government will accept that our amendments might offer a better, clearer formulation than that of subsection (6). The Government are particularly keen on so-called pre-legislative scrutiny. However, we are talking about real pre-legislative scrutiny, whereby the views of the family procedure rules committee would be taken into account—this would not merely be a matter of consulting it.

We suggest, in amendments Nos. 30 and 60, that the Lord Chancellor must ensure that there is training and a large enough number of lay justices for the family proceedings courts. We also suggest that exactly the same changes should be made to clause 50, which deals with youth courts. That is just as valid. As lay justices, people need specialist training to deal with the difficult issues arising in youth courts—just as they do in family courts.

I hope that the Government will see that the amendments are genuinely intended to improve the Bill. I have made it clear that they are not perfect, but I hope that the Minister will respond constructively.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I shall take amendments Nos. 59 and 61 together, as they both deal with the same subject, and then speak to the remaining amendments in the group. Amendments Nos. 59 and 61 deal with consultation on rules to be made under these clauses. They would require the Lord Chancellor to publish draft rules and to take into account the views of the respective rules committees.

I am not sure that we would accomplish much by adding the word ''publish'' to the Bill. Apart from anything else, I am advised that it has no meaning in statute. It is common practice for Departments to consult on draft rules via websites, as well as to send copies to interested parties. That seems adequate.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am slightly concerned about the Government's increasing reliance on websites—almost to the exclusion of all else. although we want to encourage what is referred to as e-government—earlier, someone referred sotto voce to an e-enabled shadow Solicitor-General, and I am happy to be considered to be e-enabled—the Government must remember that hard copies are still important when they are consulting people in a traditional field such as the law. It will never be adequate for the Government just to put something on the website of the Department for Constitutional Affairs and to assume that everybody will see it.

Not everybody is of the same generation as the youthful Minister who is putting forward the Government's case. I asked my—

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. This is supposed to be an intervention.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I had forgotten that, too, Mr. O'Brien. One can get carried away by a persuasive argument.

It is sometimes adequate to put details on the website, but it can also be necessary to send hard copies to interested parties; indeed, that is normal practice. We would not wish to row back from that. That explanation of how we publish, disseminate and consult should satisfy the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, and I hope that he will think again about that aspect of the amendment.

Subsection (6) already states that

''Rules under subsection (4) may be made only after consultation with the Family Procedure Rule Committee.''

I am not sure whether it is the hon. Gentleman's intention to replicate that demand elsewhere, but that would be the effect of the amendment. I should be concerned about that, given that there is already a requirement to consult.

Turning to the proposed duty to have regard to the recommendations of the rules committee, the courts have made it clear that in order to comply with any statutory requirement to consult, the person under the duty must conscientiously take into account the product of the consultation. That being the case, we are not sure that the proposed duty would add anything. If adopted, it might have the unlooked-for

and adverse consequential effect of suggesting that statutory references to consultation are deficient if they do not contain that phraseology. I am advised that that is another reason why we should be wary of inserting that provision in the Bill.

The amendments would also remove the subsections that allow the rules to confer powers on the Lord Chancellor. That is not a new provision; section 67(5) of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 is similar.

As the clause already refers to the Lord Chancellor's powers in relation to authorisations, it makes sense for any rules under that clause to be able to do the same. I therefore hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

As for amendment No. 30, magistrates exercise a wide jurisdiction in family cases, sitting as family proceedings courts. Because of the sensitive nature of family work, and the knowledge and understanding that are required, only certain magistrates exercise those specialist jurisdictions. Outside greater London, they are at present drawn from panels elected locally by their fellow magistrates. The relevant provisions are currently contained in sections 67 and 68 of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980. That system will no longer be appropriate when there is a national jurisdiction for magistrates, and the panel system will be abolished. Clause 49 provides for a better and more transparent procedure, by which only specially trained and suitable magistrates will be selected to sit in family proceedings courts. Those selected will have authorisation that will be valid throughout England and Wales.

In future the Lord Chancellor will have to authorise a justice of the peace before he or she can sit as a member of a family proceedings court, and will be able to delegate that power—for example, to the president of the family division or to the appropriate committees of justices. The Lord Chancellor will have the power to make rules regarding the allocation and removal of authorisations, the appointment of chairmen at family proceedings courts and the composition of those courts. It is envisaged that new rules that provide for a more transparent selection procedure will be published for comment and be subject to Parliament's approval.

Clause 49(2) repeals section 68 of the Magistrates Courts Act in respect of combined family panels for two or more petty sessions areas—now to be known as local justice areas. Those provisions will be obsolete, as the Bill abolishes petty sessions areas and gives magistrates a national jurisdiction. The amendment will therefore serve only to leave an unnecessary section in the 1980 Act, which I hope the hon. Gentleman can see would be neither desirable nor effective.

Finally, amendments Nos. 60 and 62 seek to impose on the Lord Chancellor a duty to make provision for the training of a sufficient number of lay justices to sit in family proceedings and youth courts. We recognise the valuable role that magistrates who take part in

family and youth jurisdictions play, and we are committed to retaining lay magistrates and encouraging them to sit in those jurisdictions. We are also aware of the importance of having sufficient authorised justices to sit in those jurisdictions. The effective running of those courts requires an appropriate number.

The power in the clause to authorise magistrates for specialist jurisdictions allows the Lord Chancellor to authorise the right number of people, and people of the right calibre, too. There is a balance to be struck between those two necessary aims, and the relevant amendments are not an appropriate way to deal with those concerns. I assure the Committee that we shall continue to seek to recruit lay justices of the right quality and to train them to the standards required to sit in both the family proceedings and the youth courts. As we are publicly committed to that aim, the amendments are unnecessary, and, moreover, might not achieve what they seek. On those grounds, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I shall not pursue the matter today. I said in my opening remarks that we were seeking a better formulation than the existing subsection (6). I went on a bit in my intervention, but I am still worried that the Government concentrate too much on websites—although I am glad that the Minister confirmed that it is his Department's practice to send out hard copies to appropriate consultees. I shall not purse the matter this afternoon, but I hope that the Minister will understand that we are concerned about both family courts and youth courts. We might want to return to those issues on Report, but for now I beg to ask to leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 49 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.